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EU Security Experts Combat Potential Euro Counterfeiters - 2001-08-31

The new European single currency, the euro, will not go into circulation until January 1. But European Union security experts are already hard at work trying to make sure that criminals will not be able to take advantage of the situation. One reason the European Central Bank waited until this week to unveil the new euro banknotes was to minimize criminals' chances of forging the currency.

A major feature of the bank's massive media campaign to prepare Europeans for the new currency is to explain its security features. These include elaborate holograms and watermarks aimed at foiling counterfeiters. The seven different euro notes also have special raised printing, iridescent stripes, and a special dark security line that become visible only when held up to a bright light.

Europol is the European Union's fledgling police agency, charged with coordinating investigations between European police forces. But now, Europol faces a new and challenging task: to keep criminal organizations from taking advantage of the introduction of the euro to literally make a mint.

Despite the security features on the euro notes, the head of Europol's anti-counterfeiting unit, Derek Porter, says criminals are still likely to try to forge them. "We're not naive enough to suggest that it doesn't still present an opportunity for organized crime," he says. "That's the reason we're here. That's the reason we've been working for the last year-and-a-half to prepare for this opportunity."

Europol officials say the foil hologram on one of the notes was redesigned after the master plate was stolen from a shipment aboard an Air France flight.

Mr. Porter says that, even as his team steps up its preparations for the euro launch, criminals are also increasing their activities.

German officials recently reported that the number of fake German marks they pulled out of circulation in the first three months of this year was 63 percent higher than that of one year before. Reports from Italy say the mafia is busily forging Italian lira notes to trade them in for euros once the changeover to the new currency occurs.

Europol's deputy director, Willy Bruggeman, says his agency's biggest challenge is to deter currency crimes in the run-up to, and immediately after, the euro's introduction. "Here, we need well-focused, coordinated action in all European Union member states," he says. "And it's the first time that most of the European Union member states will have to work together so closely."

The euro will go into circulation simultaneously in 12 of the European Union's 15 countries. Only Britain, Denmark, and Sweden have opted out.

The changeover from the mark, the French franc, the lira and other currencies to the euro will take up to two months. Banks in some countries are required to report large cash transactions to the authorities.

But some experts, like Mark Tantum, of the international accounting firm Deloitte, Touche, warn that the sheer volume of such transactions will overwhelm law enforcement personnel, with the danger that money launderers could take advantage of the occasion. "Very soon, you'll get a series of police officers who can't possibly cope, who, because they're being swamped by, if you like, innocent reports, where people are totally legitimate, they won't have the resources to get to the real problems," he says.

Mr. Tantum says that, over time, that scenario may discourage banks from reporting suspicious dealings. And that, he says, would turn the introduction of the euro into a missed opportunity for Europe's police and a potential bonanza for its criminals.